A Look into Nestle’s Controversial Water Bottling Business in Canada

The company's Canadian subsidiary is currently in dispute with an Ontario town that was experiencing a drought.

|
Sep 30 2016, 2:39pm


Photo via Flickr user Wilson Hui

With about 0.5 percent of the world's population, Canada has a disproportionate share of global water supply with seven percent of the globe's renewable water and roughly half of the world's lakes. Groundwater is just one of the many water sources in Canada, but the lack of federal and provincial regulation with regards to groundwater extraction has made it very easy for big companies like Nestle to swoop in and monopolize groundwater resources.

In fact, Nestle Waters Canada—a subsidiary of the multi-billion dollar Swiss company Nestle Group actually has a pretty long history of extracting clean groundwater from all across Canada, specifically British Columbia. Nestle Waters has two plants in Canada—one in Hope, BC, the other in Aberfoyle, near the city of Guelph, Ontario. There have been ongoing water disputes between the community and Nestle in both those regions.

Kawkawa Lake, District of Hope, BC

Nestle and the residents of the District of Hope have been at loggerheads over water supply from the Kawkawa Lake since 2000, when Nestle opened a water-bottling facility in Hope, using water from only one source, the Kawkawa Lake. Nestle vehemently defends its operations, stating that they withdraw less than 1 percent of the available groundwater in the Kawkawa Lake aquifer. But the issue arises when a drought hits and the residents of Hope are forced to restrict water use, while Nestle is allowed to continue the same pace of production.

Nestle bottles approximately 265 million litres of water from BC. Up until the beginning of this year, Nestle paid absolutely nothing for water it took from Kawkawa Lake. It was only in 2016 after much pressure primarily from the residents of Hope, that the province instituted regulations requiring any company extracting clean drinking water to pay $2.25 per million litres of water. According to activist group The Council of Canadians, the $2.25 rate is low compared to other provinces. In Ontario, for instance, companies have to pay up to $15 to extract a million litres of clean drinking water. In 2011, as a gesture of appreciation of sorts, Nestle donated $45,000 to the District of Hope for the construction of a playground.

The BC government takes a different stance on the issue of payment. They say charging a fee for water could have the potential of raising legal questions over who owns that water. In addition, they claim that Nestle is hardly affected by a small fee for water, but many smaller bottling companies would be priced out of the market. Until the Water Sustainability Act was instituted in 2016, BC's only water regulation related to ensuring groundwater extraction techniques were environmentally safe. Clean groundwater is up for bids in most of BC, with corporations like Nestle often having the upper hand because of their scale of production, and ability to ensure that extraction methods do not hurt the environment. Now however, the provincial government has the authority to step in with mandatory restrictions in the case of a drought.

Hillsburgh, Ontario

In 2005, the former CEO of Nestle, Peter Brabeck was quoted as saying that water should not be considered a human right and be instead treated as a "foodstuff commodity." That video was leaked and went viral in 2013—the same year that Nestle was in the middle of another dispute with the town of Hillsburgh, Ontario, near Guelph. Nestle withdraws as much as 1.1 million litres of water daily from a well in Hillsburgh, which has suffered three major droughts since 2007.

2013 was one of the driest years in Hillsburgh, yet Nestle continued to extract the same amount of water from that one well. Public pressure caused the province to intervene, and when it renewed Nestle's contract on the Hillsburgh Well, it made it mandatory for Nestle to reduce the amount of groundwater it extracts during times of drought. The story didn't end there, unfortunately. Nestle aggressively appealed the new permit's restrictions and a few months later, the Ontario's Environment Ministry agreed to remove the restrictions.

Wellington, Ontario

Just a couple of days ago, Nestle outbid the Township of Centre Wellington, Ontario, for it's only new source of clean drinking water—a local well. The Township sits entirely on what is called glacial moraine, an unconsolidated accumulation of soil and rock that once used to be a glacier. This unique geological formation makes it particularly difficult for residents of the town to have access to a safe supply of drinking water. In fact, there is only one new source of clean drinking water in Centre Wellington—the local well that Nestle now owns.

The same activist group that was involved in getting Nestle to pay for water in BC put out a petition last week calling for the boycott of Nestle, which actually already owns a large bottling plant in nearby Aberfoyle, Ontario. According to the petition, Nestle pays less than $15 a day for clean groundwater from this particular well, and "ships it out of the community in hundreds of millions of single use plastic bottles for sale all over North America—at an astronomical markup."

However, according to Andreanne Simard, Nestle's Natural Resource Manager at its plant near Guelph, the Township of Centre Wellington is "lucky to have a company that monitors and manages a resource like water so well."

"We're very particular that there is no adverse, negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem."

Simard claims that in August this year, at the height of the drought in Centre Wellington, Nestle voluntarily reduced their water extraction by 20 percent. "One thing we have in common with the community is our shared passion for water," Simard said.

But the declaration from the Council of Canadians is asking for more than just a boycott of Nestle because of its activities in the Township of Central Wellington, it's calling for Nestle to "stop profiting from water altogether."

"Wasting our limited groundwater on frivolous and consumptive uses such as bottled water is madness," it said.

However, Ontario's government has come to the defence of Nestle. Treasury Board President Liz Sandals, who reps Guelph, says the public often has the wrong facts about the company.

"There's no doubt that there is a lot of concern, but my point to you is that many of the things that people will express a concern about actually turn out to be based on misinformation," she said, according to the Canadian Press.

Follow Vanmala Subramaniam on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels